Tuesday, 31 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 156. "Clean Sweep" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 181 pages
Rating: 4 stars

It's my last book of the year, and I'm feeling a bit worn out after a LOT of blogging, so I'm taking the liberty of letting the authors themselves summarise the book (it's self published), because Ilona writes way better than I:

On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problems should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is...different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can't leave the grounds because she's responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, "normal" is a bit of a stretch for Dina. 

And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night... Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor Sean Evans - an alpha-strain werewolf - and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her Inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she is facing is unlike anything she's ever encountered before. It's smart, vicious and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything. 

Clean Sweep began as a side project for Ilona Andrews. A free serial where they would post a new instalment every week or so, until their workload forced them to slow down, they describe the creation of the book "like writing in front of an audience". The readers would comment with editing suggestions, proof reading and/or comments about what worked/didn't work for them. Once a chapter was up on the website, they couldn't go back and edit too heavily or rewrite, and to their audience interested, they needed to hook readers quickly, and keep them reading, usually by ending chapters on cliffhangers or teasing excitement yet to come. The serial became immensely popular, and they were persuaded to self publish the work. Once the main story was completed, they took the serial offline and promised that the final part of the last chapter, and the epilogue, would be included in the e-book version for sale. Finally released in a variety of e-book formats and as print on demand in early December, the authors have sold more of their initially free book than they had ever hoped for.

I'm very glad that this has proved a success, because I thought it was a wonderful thing for them to do in the first place, and a lovely bonus project for their many and loyal fans. Long-time readers of my blog know that I'm a huge fan of both the Kate Daniels series (among my favourite paranormal fantasy series currently running) and their now completed Edge series (loosely interconnected fantasy novels with a more romantic focus). Hence I was never not going to buy this book, and I already knew that I liked it. Andrews writes great characters, with distinctive personalities. They have tense and exciting action set pieces and very witty dialogue. I'm amazed at how quickly they play with paranormal/urban fantasy expectations, establishing a new world with a fairly contemporary American setting, but with "bigger on the inside" buildings with portals to other worlds, and common urban/paranormal tropes like vampires and werewolves, but suddenly announcing that these are actually aliens from other worlds, and that the myths our world has about these creatures have very natural expectations.

Like their other heroines before her, Dina is a very capable and pragmatic protagonist. The makings of a love triangle are introduced, but while Dina doesn't mind looking at pretty menfolk, she also learned that if you want something done, you might be better off doing it yourself, and that intergalactic space travellers, even of the hunky and charming variety, may not want to settle down running a B&B in small town Texas.

Due to the great success of their first volume, Ilona and Gordon have promised that there will be more Innkeeper Chronicles to come, and have posted teasing snippets that suggest that maybe all those fans complaining that they finished off the Edge books may see further appearances of supporting characters from those books making appearances in future stories. I'm very glad I chose this as my final book and concluding Cannonball review of 2013. Triple Cannonball completed!

#CBR5 Book 155. "Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Louise "Lou" Clark works in a cafe, and likes it, helping her parents out with whatever money she can. Her mother spends most of her days taking care of Lou's grandfather, who's recovering from a stroke, so can't work, and due to the recession, there's threats of downsizing at the factory where her father works. Her younger sister, the "smart one", had to drop out of university when she was accidentally knocked up, and now works as a florist, while her five-year-old is minded by her and Lou's mother after school. Lou has also dated the same man for the last seven years, and they have a comfortable sort of a relationship. But since Patrick got into his triathlons, he's more and more focused on exercise than anything else.

So when Lou is told by her boss that he's closing the cafe and moving back to Australia, leaving her with three months' pay and nothing to do, the entire family panics a bit. There's not a lot to do for a twenty-six-year-old with few qualifications, and after a few disastrous short term engagements at a chicken processing plant and in some fast food joint, the options open to Lou are pretty much pole dancer, adult phone line operator or care assistant. So when an high paying opening to be the care assistant for a young man, with assurances that Lou will not be expected to do anything involving personal hygiene or medical care, she doesn't really have a choice but to show up for an interview.

Despite not having any sort of formal qualifications suitable for the job, Mrs Traynor, the patient's mother agrees to give her a chance. It turns out that Lou will spend her days as a companion to Will Traynor, a thirty-year-old former businessman turned paraplegic after a random accident. Having been extremely physically active, travelling all over world before the accident, Will is deeply miserable in his new situation, and while Lou doesn't discover it right away, he's tried to kill himself once and has pressured his parents to agree to let him travel to Switzerland to be allowed assisted suicide. They're desperately hoping he will reconsider, and employing Lou, who despite her family troubles is cheerful, optimistic and very unorthodox, is one of the ways in which they're trying to improve is mood. Will, however, is surly and hostile for much of Lou's first months as his assistant, making her parents' financial worries and the limited six month contract the only reason she puts up with him.

As she starts demanding he treat her with more kindness and respect, their relationship starts to change into something closer to friendship. Will challenges her to try new things, like classical music, subtitled movies and acclaimed novels, which she tends to initially label as "not her thing". Hence, when Lou discovers the true reason why she's only employed for six months, she is sorely tempted to quit, refusing to accept that the Traynors are letting Will commit suicide. She wants to show Will all the things he will be missing out on, and plans a series of elaborate experiences to make him change his mind.

While the book deftly handles difficult issues like severe disability and the moral grey areas around assisted suicide, it doesn't in any way judge one way or the other, and the most important story isn't the romantic feelings that start developing between Louisa and Will as the novel progresses, but the blossoming that Lou does once she overcomes the initial months of her contract, and starts finding some common ground with him.

Having always seen her younger sister as the prettier, smarter one, and putting up with good-natured teasing from her family and boyfriend about her looks, and colourful dress sense, Lou has never really challenged herself to be anything else or reach for more. She got the job in the cafe on a bet, and stayed there until it closed down, quite happy for nothing to change. While Patrick is no longer the man she actually fell in love with, it's easier not to confront the fact that he's far more caught up in his own fitness regime, with no plans to ever propose to her or even ask her to move in with him, and so they stay in a fairly depressing holding pattern. She stopped using the library when she graduated high school, she's never really travelled outside the confines of the little town, and she's never really even dared to dream about anything different or bigger. Will, who is now trapped in his own body and unable to go anywhere without assistance, challenges and questions her choices, refusing to let her just maintain the status quo because it's easier or more comfortable.

Will is hostile, surly and miserable for a reason. Reading about the life he had before his accident, and the way he's viewed by almost everyone when he leaves the house, Moyes makes a very good case for why he may want to choose to end his own life. In making her grand list of adventures, Lou goes online to a variety of message boards and forums, and it's clear that there are people with severe disabilities who find that they have things left to live for, and are able to readjust their expectations in life, but it's also clear that this may not be enough for everyone. It's a moving book, and very sad in places, dealing with serious issues in a very non-preachy way. I also appreciated that the book ends on a very hopeful note. Thank you, Jen K for giving me the book in the Cannonball Book Swap this year!

#CBR5 Book 154. "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

Page count: 305 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Having lost his job as a web developer due to the recession, Clay Jannon finds a new job as the night clerk in the titular bookstore, belonging to the mysterious Mr. Penumbra. Not that he sells all that many books. As well as the normal shelves, with its somewhat eclectic selection of novels and non fiction, there is what Clay calls the "wayback" section of the store, huge shelves of unique volumes, not to be found in any search engine, a sort of strange lending library for the odd individuals who show up with a laminated cards, returning a volume and fetching another at random intervals. Clay is asked to keep a log, describing the appearance of each of the customers and the state of mind each new customer was in when they come to swap a book.

Clay starts using his web developer skills to make a 3D-model of the store and the "wayback" section on his computer, trying to see if there's any pattern, rhyme or reason to the strange regulars and their lending patterns. He also works on trying to lure new customers to the store, using all the tools available to him in social media to advertise its location. Once he meets Kat, a young lady working at Google, his plans to map the mysterious patterns of Mr. Penumbra's store really take off, and soon he and his friends are involved in a mysterious quest involving a global conspiracy, a secret organisation, code breaking, data visualisation on a massive scale and possibly the secret to eternal life.

As someone who loves books, a book about a mysterious book store and a mystery surrounding reading sounded pretty enticing, but like so many other books, this ended up on my TBR shelf and languished there for a long time. It ended up being a very different book from what I was expecting, and I can see why it's not everyone's cup of tea, as it's very clever in slightly knowing and self referential way, combining the story of an ancient secret society trying to decode books with digitalisation, e-readers and Twitter. There are so many geeky references here, to role playing and gaming and various types of programming and web developing. Some might describe is as a "Hipster quest narrative", and they wouldn't be too far off the mark.

I think the book may have gotten a bit too clever for its own good in places, and the conclusion of the story doesn't come together as well as it began. I'm not sure I believe certain of the developments the story took, and that some of the characters got a bit lost in the main thrust of the excitement of the denouement. Still, it's a fun book, with a rather unusual premise, and I enjoyed reading it.

#CBR5 Book 153. "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma

Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is such a very difficult book to review, as to give away too much of the plot, or say too much about the characters would ruin the reading experience of those yet to read it.

Each chapter starts with a quote from a famous author about the art of writing, the art of creating fiction or just lying. "The truth is beautiful. Without doubt; and so are lies." is the first one. In the first section of the book: "What was lost", our unnamed narrator starts telling us about his childhood, waiting in Terminal B of an unnamed airport for his flight attendant mother to come back from wherever she'd gone to next. We're told how the twenty-two page adventure story he wrote (with illustrations) was lost when the man who ran the watch repair suddenly collapsed, and the book was thrown away. He tells us about going to a debutante ball because the brother of the girl he fancied was injured on a golf course shortly before, about going to college and starting to write in earnest, striking up a friendship and life long rivalry with the mysterious and charismatic Julian. At college he also meets the glamorous Evelyn, a promising actress, who may or may not be the love of his life.

In "What was found", we may finally have discovered the name of our narrator, or have we? He's had a disastrous falling out with his two closest friends, and is now travelling the globe, making a living from spinning clever and believable lies in one way or another. This section really spans the globe, set in parts in America, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland and a wealth of other locations and continues to explore the nature of truth, lies and the art of storytelling. Can we trust our narrator, or is he always going to be unreliable? Is he still "telling us the truth but slant" as he learned in college? Does it actually matter?

This book first came to my attention when Joanna Robinson, one of the staff writers on Pajiba raved about it, saying it was one of the best books she'd read all year. That made me notice it in a number of other places, and other Cannonballers and online reviewers have rated it very highly as well. It made it a natural choice for "a book everyone but you has read" in my Book Bingo challenge, and it also worked nicely in my A to Z challenge. I read it pretty much in one sitting, while on the plane back from Marrakesh after Christmas. It was one of the only things that took my mind off the churning nausea raging in my belly, and for that I am very grateful. I may not have loved it as much as Joanna, but I can highly recommend this clever book to anyone who likes a more unusual read exploring the joys of fiction.

#CBR5 Book 152. "Vampire Science" by Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

In 1976 a young med student named Carolyn meets the eight Doctor and his teenage companion Sam, while they're trying to stop Eva, a vampire, from killing a young woman. Having never realised that there was such a thing as vampires, time travel or exciting individuals like the Time Lord and his companion, Carolyn's word is forever altered, but despite an unspoken invitation to join the Doctor on his continued adventures, Carolyn chooses to take the injured woman to the ER and worry about her upcoming exam instead.

Twenty years later, there are clearly vampires in San Francisco again. Carolyn is a doctor herself now and has made great strides to fulfil her dream of finding a cure for cancer. She has a good life, and a dependable lighting technician boyfriend, but when the Doctor and Sam appear again, barely changed from when she met them two decades ago, she starts to wonder if she made the right choice.

There's been a number of mysterious deaths, and the Doctor and Sam are there to stop them. It turns out that not all the vampires necessarily want to hunt humans, some are trying to find alternatives to drinking human blood. Then again, one faction of the San Francisco vampires are more than happy for things to remain the same, and they don't feel that the Doctor, Carolyn, Sam or even UNIT are enough of a threat to keep them from declaring war on humanity.

It seems very likely that the writers of this book originally intended Carolyn to be Grace Holloway, from the 1996 TV movie. The film was set in San Francisco, and her character was a doctor. Due to rights issues, they needed to change things, and the beginning of the book has a lot of really rather clunky info dumping, as well as the rather hurried prologue, probably inserted to desperately give Carolyn some back story with the Doctor and more of a characterisation than would have been needed if they could've just used Grace. Sadly, James, her lighting technician boyfriend barely gets any characterisation at all until the book is nearly over. Having just been reminded with Night of the Doctor that the Eight Doctor, played by Paul McGann, was by far the sexiest of his many incarnations, I'm not the least bit surprised that Carolyn would be tempted to drop everything and run off with him in the TARDIS.

There are a lot of clever nods to all sorts of previous vampire stories, including Anne Rice, Dracula, and there's even a mention of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although most likely the movie version, as the book seems to have come out before the TV series started airing. There are some amazing revelations as to what forms the "vampire science" of the title have taken, including some really very funny attempts at turning various animals vampiric. A quick enough read, it is still by far the weakest of the Doctor Who novels I've read, and unless you're very into vampires, there are better ones to check out first.

#CBR5 Book 151. "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

Page count: 408 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In 2060, disgraced Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor left after an expedition to the planet of Rakhat. He's grievously injured, both physically and mentally, and refuses to speak to the investigators who are desperate to find out what went wrong, far away on the alien planet. Sandoz stands accused of some pretty terrible crimes, and slowly the story of what took place several light years away is revealed.

Proof of extra terrestrial life is discovered in 2019 in a small and fairly insignificant listening post in Puerto Rico. While the United Nations and other global powers are still trying to figure out what to do about the discovery, the Jesuits organise a scientific mission in secret, sending eight people to the newly discovered planet, Rakhat, hoping to establish communication and peaceful relations with the aliens whose heartbreaking songs proved their existence on Earth. Emilio is one of the eight, and at least six of the other members of the exploration crew are close personal friends of his. "They meant no harm" is the final line in the prologue, and it's such an ominous hint of what's to come in the rest of the novel.

The Sparrow is not an easy read. It was one of three books suggested to me by Jen K to complete a square on my Book Bingo card, and I must admit, I ended up reading it both because it was the shortest of the three, because I've seen it so highly rated elsewhere for years and because I keep trying to make myself like science fiction, something that only rarely seems to work out. The book reveals pretty much in the opening section that all the characters we keep reading about in 2019 are no longer alive in the sections that take place in 2060. That made me depressed throughout the book, and bracing myself for the worst, long before it's actually revealed what actually happened, and what "harm" the well-meaning Earthlings actually caused.

Once the truth of what had happened to Emilio and all his friends was finally explained, it was also more tragic and even worse than I had imagined, and really very unpleasant indeed. It's a very well written book, and it deals with a a number of philosophical, metaphysical, moral and religious questions without providing any easy answers. I can totally understand why so many people rate it very highly. Unfortunately, I didn't actually enjoy reading large parts of the book. While it was great to see how the various members of the Stella Maris expedition came to meet and befriend each other, and their wonderful discoveries on the alien planet, I knew from the start that all of them except Emilio were doomed, and it was very clear from early on that he wished he'd died, as well. So I don't think I'll be reading the sequel, and I really wish that the book hadn't scarred me, because that's the only word I can think of to describe it, as much as it did.

#CBR5 Book 150. "Zel" by Donna Jo Napoli

Page count: 227 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Zel lives in a remote cottage in the mountains with Mother. The only time she sees other people is twice a year, when they go to Market in the nearest town, quite some distance away. While Zel finds the people, bustle and excitement of town life exhilarating, Mother insists that they have everything that they need in their little home, and warns her daughter away from strangers. Yet Zel dreams of a different life, of some day having a husband and children and a home of her own. Just before her thirteenth birthday, she meets a beautiful young man with a spirited horse, and she can't seem to get him out of her mind.

Konrad, the young count, is also unable to forget the young girl he met in the marketplace, and who seemed to almost magically calm his horse. Even when his parents try to arrange suitable marriages for him with lovely young maidens, he refuses, riding around the countryside trying to find out where the mysterious Zel can be found.

Mother grows anxious and worried when Zel mentions the pretty young man, and claims that there are bad people out there who want to harm them. She takes Zel to an abandoned tower, a fair distance from even their remote cottage, and before Zel realises entirely what is going on, she is trapped high above ground, with no way of escaping, with Mother on the ground, saying she will keep the bad people away. Zel's hair starts growing at a furious rate, until she can pull Mother in and out of the tower with it. Lonely and distressed, the young girl dreams about the young man, and tries to while away the months and years of her imprisonment. She's fairly sure she's gone entirely mad, when one day there is a call for her to let down her hair, and count Konrad climbs in instead of Mother.

This is a short read, and an interesting retelling of the story of Rapunzel. Some of the chapters are narrated in third person, and show Zel and Konrad's point of views. The ones from Mother's POV are in first person, making her account the most personal of the three, and making the reader empathise more with her, even as she's the nominal villain of the story. The witch who forced a young couple to give away their child in return for the Rapunzel salad they had stolen from her garden, who locks the girl in a tall tower to keep her away from all others - Mother is more than this here. A frustrated and intelligent woman given a tempting choice, incredible power over all growing things in return for a soul she might not even believe she has, who finds herself barren and alone, willing to do anything to gain a child, and who loves that child so much that she's determined to do anything to keep her, even if it means making the girl possibly hate her. Mother can't bear to lose her beloved daughter, but when it becomes clear that she may have caused her more harm than good, she makes the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her daughter's eventual happiness.

#CBR5 Book 149. "Bigger Than a Bread Box" by Laurel Snyder

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 3 stars

12-year-old Rebecca's parents have been arguing for a while, and one day Rebecca's mother takes the kids and her stuff and moves from Baltimore back to her mother in Atlanta, needing some space to figure things out. Rebecca is not at all happy about her parent's separation, having to live in a new place, starting a new school and spends quite a lot of time sulking. Rummaging around in her grandmother's attic, she finds an old breadbox, which appears to grant wishes, as long as whatever is wished for actually exists in the world and can fit into the space within the breadbox (so no unicorns or infinite wishes).

Thanks to the things Rebecca manages to acquire through the breadbox (new clothes, an Ipod, money, gift cards, lots and lots of candy, among other things), she manages to make herself quite popular at school and finds her new home with her grandma a bit easier to accept. While she still resents her mother for taking them away, and misses her father terribly, she's starting to settle in and adjust. Then she discovers the truth about where the items in the breadbox come from, and things get a lot more uncomfortable and difficult. Rebecca discovers that you can't get something for nothing, there is always a price to be paid.

Having reached December with quite a few books left on my "A to Z" reading challenge, this is the book I picked for X (as Q, Z and X don't need to be the first letter of the book, cause that would be very difficult indeed). It deals with the rather serious issues of separation and sudden upheaval well, and while Rebecca spends a lot of the book being a total brat to her mother (I, as a grownup, had a lot less patience with her clearly rather useless dad), being completely uprooted and having to settle in at a new school when just entering your teens is never going to be fun. Apart from the magical breadbox, there isn't a lot of fantasy to this book, and the lessons Rebecca gets about actions having consequences are things that a lot of middle grade books, in my experience, gloss over.

#CBR5 Book 148. "The Countess Conspiracy" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 295 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Sebastian Malheur has been scandalising polite society for years with his scientific lectures on the passing on of genetic traits, to the point where riots are now likely to break out when he presents any new findings. The truth, however, is that the discoveries he presents as his own, are actually those of his best friend, Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury. Violet is as proper and respectable as Sebastian is scandalous and reviled. But now Sebastian refuses to be Violet's decoy any longer.

Violet's marriage was not a happy one, and she sought refuge in her scientific discoveries. The daughter of a woman who wrote the ultimate guide to proper ladies' behaviour, Violet is all that is respectable, decorous and decent. Yet Violet and her sister learned early, after their father committed suicide, that there were unwritten shadow rules as well as the written official rules, and most of them amounted to a lady doing anything in her power to keep scandal from her family's door, using any method at her disposal. If the truth were to come out, that the shocking discoveries that Sebastian has been presenting, were actually all the work of a woman, the scandal would be immense and instantaneous.

Sebastian has loved Violet for nearly half his life, and agreed to put his name on Violet's first scientific paper when it had been rejected several times with her own name on it. As her discoveries, hidden behind his name, continued to amaze the academic society and shock and appal pretty much everyone else, he had no choice but to go along with it. Now his brother is sick with a heart condition, though, and Sebastian is determined to prove himself respectable and responsible enough to be appointed his young nephew's guardian, should something happen to his older brother. He can't be the most reviled academic in England, even for Violet's sake.

Sebastian and Violet have been supporting characters in the other Brothers Sinister books, and it was actually revealed at the end of The Heiress Effect that Violet was the mastermind behind Sebastian's scientific discoveries. Because Oliver, the hero of that book, proved to be such a disappointment, I was terrified that this book was going to let me down in some way as well. Courtney Milan is by far my favourite romance novelist writing at the moment, and my expectations for this book just continued to build as the months wore on, and Milan teasingly posted little teaser snippets on her Facebook page.

The book was not a disappointment, although it turned out to be something completely different from what I was expecting. While the series may be called The Brothers Sinister, with the heroes having been the focus of the two previous books, this book belongs primarily to Violet, who broke my heart. A deeply insecure and unhappy woman, Violet is such a fiercely brilliant but horribly damaged woman. She has never felt good enough, desperately seeking the approval and approbation of her cold mother and needy, selfish sister. While she grew up with Sebastian and his cousin Robert, as a woman, she could never truly belong to their little fellowship either. Despite making absolutely amazing genetic discoveries, she believes herself to be worthless and unlovable, and she distrusts any overtures of affection or friendship. I just wanted to hug her so hard, even if she probably would have hated such a gesture.

Sebastian may be a legendary rake, but his heart has belonged to Violet since before she got married, and he's been her most faithful friend in thick and thin, never revealing his true feelings for her, because he knows how closed off she is. She can barely stand anyone touching her, let alone admitting love for her. Even when he does admit the truth about his feelings towards her, their friendship and her feelings come first, and he does nothing to pressure her, waiting with infinite patience for her to make up her mind about what she wants and feels. Violet may have broken my heart, but Sebastian patched it back up again.

The romance between Violet and Sebastian isn't actually the most important part of this story - the changes Violet has to go through to accept and love herself, and realise that she's a person worthy of friendship and can have a worthwhile relationship with someone, are so much more vital here. The emotional wounds that Violet need Sebastian's help to heal are immense, and upsetting. It's not an easy book to read, but it's oh so satisfying in the end. Milan has admitted that this is the book she's been working towards through the whole series and that made her want to write the books in the first place, and it's inspired in part by several great real life women, whose contributions to science went wholly or partially unrewarded. One of the things I love is how unafraid Milan is to show the less glamorous sides of history in her novel. This book is in my top ten of 2013, just as I hoped it would be.

#CBR5 Book 147. "Knaves' Wager" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Thanks to Mrs. Julien for her awesome romance review template!

Knaves’ Wager is a romance of the you are everything I never knew I always wanted AND opposites attract variety: Boy meets girl. He is the reprobate former best friend of her now-dead husband. She hates him because she believes he drove her husband to his early death, and is left owing him crippling gambling debts. He agrees to a foolish wager to seduce her against all odds. Boy and girl move forward together secure in their love and commitment.

A historical romance set in the Regency era just around the end of the Napoleonic wars and written by Loretta Chase, Knaves’ Wager is my fourteenth book by this author. I generally find her work at least enjoyable, and at its best, spectacular and infinitely re-readable. Chase is, most famously, the author of Lord of Scoundrels, the book All About Romance’s readers have voted as the number one in their top 100 for more than a decade. Personally, I prefer The Last Hellion, but what do I know? I found Knaves’ Wager, one of her early romances diverting, enjoyable and romantic. This book is a clean (lacking in any sex scenes, graphic or otherwise) romance, and I’ve seen it compared to the writing of Georgette Heyer. However, none of the Heyer books I’ve read contain the palpable sexual tension present in this novel, or kisses half so scorching as some of the ones in this book, so be aware that it’s not entirely chaste. I have several of Chase’s early romances still on my TBR List and will continue to seek them out because this one really was very enjoyable indeed and I would absolutely recommend it to others.

The main plot of Knaves’ Wager focuses on the reformation of a rake. Lord Julian Wyndhurst, Marquess of Brandon is that rake. He is stinking rich, handsome as sin and has a reputation for gambling and vice. He’s also been on the Continent for seven years since his involvement in a particularly scandalous duel, working closely to bring down Napoleon, and is exasperated to be brought home only to sort out his young cousin, Lord Robert Downs’s scandalous betrothal. Lilith Davenant is a widow and a victim of circumstance. She is formidable, all that is proper, decorous and virtuous, and a caring and affectionate aunt, willing to sacrifice even the last remains of her fortune to secure happier futures for her nieces and nephews than she herself found in her unfortunate marriage. Due to her husband’s gambling debts to Lord Brandon, she is forced to accept the proposal of an old friend to secure her future. Brandon agrees to seduce Lilith in order to get Robert’s mercenary mistress to release Robert from the betrothal. Julian and Lilith start out as antagonists, at least in Lilith’s eyes, yet they cannot deny the attraction they feel towards each other. Over time, they come to discover that despite any challenges they face, they make an excellent team.

The subplot in Knaves’ Wager revolves around Robert, Brandon’s young, somewhat dim cousin and Lilith’s clever niece Miss Cecily Glenwood, who is in London for her first season. The seemingly guileless country miss sets about not only getting her chosen husband, but making sure her aunt doesn’t end up in a stuffy marriage of convenience either. It was an excellent addition which nicely complemented the main plot. 

While an early effort of Chase’s, written in the early 1990s, this novel still has great characterisations, an excellent eye for detail and wonderfully witty banter. Brandon really has his work cut out for him, wooing and charming the icy Lilith, and it’s glorious to see the calculating libertine gradually fall head over heels for the irreproachable widow. As some of Chase’s most recent novels have been rather mediocre and a bit of a disappointment, it was delightful to discover that I have more of her good work to look forward to. For anyone wanting a gateway into romance reading, you would be strongly recommended to check out Loretta Chase, but avoid her Dressmaker series, pretty much everything else she’s written is better.

© 2013 Mrs. Julien Presents

#CBR5 Book 146. "These Broken Stars" by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! Disney Hyperion granted me an ARC of this through NetGalley in return for a fair review.

Much as I love the colours and the lush quality of the cover for this book (my husband disagrees with me, he thinks it's dreadful), it doesn't actually give a very realistic portrayal of what the book is about. It's not really floating about in space in a ball gown (but the gown does exist, and Lilac does spend a substantial amount of the story wearing it), or even Titanic in space, as I saw it described elsewhere (although there are obvious nods to the film). So if you're hoping for that, you may want to adjust your expectations before going in.

Boy meets girl on board the most expensive intergalactic cruise liner in the known universe. Boy and girl have a connection. The next time boy and girl meet, girl viciously rejects boy in front of her friends. Boy is deeply hurt, but this doesn't stop him from helping her to an escape pod when something goes horribly wrong and the ship they're on is wrenched out of hyperspace and needs to be evacuated. Boy and girl crash escape pod on nearby planet, and have to make their way across the deserted and sometimes dangerous planet with hardly any supplies, hoping to be rescued.

Our boy is Tarver Mendenson, an 18-year-old officer heavily decorated in the recent war and given special privileges aboard the Icarus because he's become a poster boy for the army. He's from a humble background, and not really comfortable in the opulent surroundings and among the wealthy passengers in the first class areas. Our girl is Lilac LaRoux, daughter of the richest man in the universe. Her father owns the Icarus (as well as much of the known universe), and Lilac has learned the hard way that young men who show any kind of interest in her have a nasty way of disappearing. She finds it charming and amazing that Tarver doesn't know who she is when they first meet, but has to dissuade him from ever talking to her again, lest he find himself suddenly deployed to the front line of another war zone before he knows what hit him. She can't tell him this, however, and by the time their escape pod crashes, he thinks she's a spoiled and callous space princess (while mysteriously adept at mechanics) and just wants to be rid of her as quickly as possible.

Being a trained soldier, Tarver has brought a pack of essentials with him. Lilac is dressed in an expensive ballgown and stiletto heels, and partially to live up to Tarver's expectations of her, insists on trekking through the wilderness while wearing them. They are horrified witnesses to the Icarus crashing several days' distance away, and realise that they'll have to get to the wreckage in the hopes of finding other survivors, and so there is a better chance of rescue ships finding them. Lilac is convinced that they will be rescued very soon, but as they trek towards the wreck, it seems more and more likely that she and Tarver are completely alone on the strange planet. But then they start hearing voices...and seeing strange things.

I first read about this book in one of the "On the Smugglers' Radar" posts on The Book Smugglers. When the ARC became available on NetGalley, I was delighted when I was granted a copy. The title also fit perfectly with the December Monthly Key Word Challenge, which meant I had to save the book until it was about to be released. As I said in my opening paragraph, I love the cover. The summary of the book on Goodreads also sounded very intriguing, and I'm happy to say that it didn't disappoint.

The book is told with alternating chapters from Tarver and Lilac's points of view. Before the start of each new chapter, there is also snippets of an interrogation, where Tarver is being questioned, which unfortunately takes away some of the suspense about whether or not the couple get rescued or not. As I also mentioned, there is a certain "Titanic in space" comparison to be made for the beginning of the book, but most of the story is one of being cast away in a lonely and hostile place, fighting for survival. There is a definite opposites attract element at play here, Tarver and Lilac are absolutely from different worlds. The romance that develops between them doesn't seem forced, though, and the story develops in ways that I certainly would never have expected, and parts of the plot were actually quite creepy. Not normally a huge fan of science fiction, this one worked for me, possibly because quite a lot of the story could just as well have been fantasy or historical fiction with a few tweaks. It looks as if the book may be the first in a series. I will be keeping a lookout for the sequels.

#CBR5 Book 145. "Proven Guilty" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 479 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs, 16 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Harry Dresden is now one of the wardens of the White Council of wizards, and he's about as thrilled about it as many of the wizards on the council are about him being recruited. Harry's asked to look into rumours of black magic in the Chicago area, and his mentor, Ebenezer McCoy, also requests that he enquire with his faerie contacts about why the Fey Courts are refusing to involve themselves in the conflict with the Red Court of vampires, even after the vampires broke into faerie territories in the Nevernever.

Harry still owes Mab, the Winter Queen, two favours, and his dealings with the Fey never really turn out in his favour. Lily, the new Summer Lady (youngest of the three Summer Queens) owes him a favour, but neither she nor Fix, the Summer Knight, can directly answer Harry's questions, or aid him, due to a compulsion laid on them by Titania, the Summer Queen, who's not exactly one of Dresden's biggest fans. Getting the answers McCoy wants isn't going to be easy.

The possible black magic use he's been asked to investigate seems connected with mysterious attacks at a horror movie convention. Molly Carpenter, the teenage daughter of Harry's friend Michael, comes to him for help. Her boyfriend is the chief suspect after a man was viciously attacked in a bathroom, but claims he's innocent. Shortly after Harry arrives at the convention to investigate, a number of people are attacked by a seven foot tall assailant who looks just like the killer in the slasher flick recently screened. An assailant who dissolves into ectoplasm when hit with a power burst from Harry's staff. It becomes clear that the ghostly entities can take physical and deadly form, and they feed on fear. Harry needs  how Molly Carpenter and her friends are connected with the case, who is summoning the monsters, and how he can stop them before more people die.

I'm a sucker for the wicked faeries, and Butcher's faeries are always ambiguous and difficult to trust, no matter what side they're purportedly on. Hence I like the books involving Fay machinations more than the ones about White Council business. Here the two sort of intertwine, but neither are the central issues in the book. It was very nice to meet the Carpenter family again, and as there's always a substantial period between each of the Dresden Files books, Molly has grown up quite a bit since the last time Harry and the readers met her. Just because she's older doesn't necessarily mean that she's all that wise, though, and she clearly has a lot of developing left to do.

Michael is away on a mission for much of the book, but his wife Charity, always so very critical of Harry, plays an important part instead. It becomes clear why she's so very suspicious of Dresden, and worried about his involvement with her family, and she really gets a chance to shine. The book also sees Thomas finally move out of Harry's apartment, having apparently found a job and lodgings elsewhere, although he's being very mysterious about the whole thing. I really like Thomas as a character, and hope that he'll not become relegated back to being a minor supporting character, just because Harry gets his apartment to himself again.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 144. "Dead Beat" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 435 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs, 14 mins
Rating: 4 stars

It's nearly Halloween (Harry's birthday) and Harry Dresden is less than thrilled to discover that his friend Police Lieutenant Karrin Murphy is going off to Hawaii with another man. He's even less thrilled when Mavra, an extremely powerful vampire of the Black Court, who he hoped they'd managed to kill in Blood Rites, turns out not to be dead and is blackmailing him with Murphy's involvement in the case unless he helps her. If Harry doesn't find something called the Word of Kemmler in three days, Mavra will make sure Murphy's career is ruined, and that she may very well face criminal charges because of aid she gave Harry on a mission against the Black Court vampires. Harry obviously can't let that happen, and so he has no choice but to agree to the vampire's demands.

Turns out the Word of Kemmler is a book, the last writings of a very powerful and very dangerous, now dead, necromancer and whoever possesses the book will gain access to terrible powers. Harry's not the only one looking for the Word. Three of Kemmler's former apprentices are in Chicago, wanting the to be the first to find the book and become the most powerful necromancer of them all. While Mavra claimed Harry wasn't allowed to tell anyone about his mission, over the course of the story, he is aided in his quest by his half-brother/current roommate Thomas, and polka obsessed forensic scientist Waldo Butters.

Hordes of zombies, wanton destruction of property, the possibility of Harry possibly getting a date with a cute bookstore clerk, a polka suit, Harry's awesome dog Mouse, evil necromancers, other wizards - some judgemental and disapproving of Harry, others charming and cool - are just some of the elements that make up this book. I'm now well and truly hooked on the series, and so glad I got an Audible account so I can keep listening to Marsters' excellent narration of them. It's nice to see Harry having friends and supporters, as he was a pretty uninteresting character as a loner in the first books. It's also been hinted for a while that Harry likes Murphy a bit more than just as friends, so him finally acknowledging that he was jealous about her going on holiday with someone else is a promising start. I also like that he doesn't spend too long brooding about it, though, but allows himself to flirt a bit with someone else. I can't really say what my favourite bit was in this book, because it would be a massive spoiler - but let's just say that I heartily approve of Harry's way of circumventing the White Council's laws about necromancy, it was a super awesome way to save the day.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 143. "Crash Into You" by Katie McGarry

Page count: 489 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Disclaimer! Harlequin Teen granted me an ARC of this through NetGalley in return for a fair review.

This is the third in the series of books (both excellent) about troubled teens who become attracted to their seemingly complete opposite. Previous books' characters appear or are mentioned, but the book works fine on its own too. If you are interested in starting at the beginning, though, start with Pushing the Limits.

Isaiah Walker should be living in foster care, but is secretly living with his best friend Noah (the hero of Pushing the Limits, who's the only person he really feels close to. However, rent money is hard to come by and if they can't find enough cash, Noah will have to move into subsidised college housing, while Isaiah has to go back to the indifferent foster parents he was so relieved to escape. He agrees to drive a car in an illegal street race to get extra money, and that's where he first meets Rachel.

Rachel Young has the perfect life, on paper. She's from a wealthy family, goes to the most prestigious private school in the state, has several protective older brothers and anything she could ever ask for. Except she suffers from terrible anxiety attacks, which she keeps repressing and keeping secret, because her family mustn't know that she's sick. Her parents' oldest daughter died of cancer when she was twelve, and Rachel, her twin and their slightly older brother have known all their lives that they were basically only born because their mother wanted another girl. That means that it's Rachel's job to make sure their mother is happy, even if it means pretending that she's a frilly girly girl who loves shopping and dresses and spa treatments, when what she really wants to do is work on her Mustang and race it as fast as she can down back roads. Even if making her mother happy means speaking at cancer fundraisers about the sister she never even met, despite the fact that public speaking makes her so anxious she vomits and nearly faints. When she finally escapes and hears about a street race, she's excited, only to turn terrified when the police arrive.

Isaiah looks tough and has a number of visible tattoos and piercings, yet Rachel feels a strange calm around him, and he helps her away from the police. At school, Rachel is known as the sickly, anxious girl with brothers who would pummel any boy who came near her, so she even if she managed to drum up the courage to speak to a boy, she probably wouldn't get the chance. At social events, her brothers' friends will occasionally pity-dance with her, but she's never had a chance to be alone with a boy, let alone one as different from her as Isaiah.

Isaiah knows that someone as clean and innocent and wealthy as Rachel has no business being involved in illegal street racing, and certainly shouldn't ever come near someone like him. When Eric, the thug who runs the races is robbed by the two college guys who tipped Rachel off about the race, Isaiah tries to stay far away from her, to protect her from Eric's attentions. But Eric finds her anyway, and both their lives are in danger if they can't find five thousand dollars to pay him. Isaiah and Rachel need to work together to get the money, and their job is made more difficult as Eric would much rather they both stay in his debt, giving him power over both of them.

While Isaiah and Rachel seemingly come from different worlds, they also have a lot in common. Isaiah feels abandoned by his mother, after discovering she was released from jail over a year before she tried to get back in contact with him. He's lying to his school and foster care worker about where he's actually living, and working so hard to get a good education and secure a job which will give him a chance to escape the misery of his current situation.

Rachel can never truly be herself and desperately hides her panic attacks, to the point where they become a risk to her health, just so her parents and brothers don't have to worry about another sick, weak and helpless sister. She's Colleen's replacement, and can't be honest about her interest in cars and mechanics and racing. She has an agreement with her twin that she covers for him, and he covers for her, which is the only way she can escape and drive aimlessly late into the night. She certainly can't tell her family that Eric is threatening to hurt her and Isaiah in all sorts of creative ways if he doesn't get his money, even if it was her brother's friends who really got her in trouble in the first place.

The characters in McGarry's books are always seeming opposites, who while not falling in love at first glance, certainly feel a strong draw to the other almost instantly, and who because of deep emotional issues have trouble acting on their real feelings. Isaiah feels lost, alone and distrusts pretty much all authority figures, especially those in the foster care system. He had two people he could rely on in thick and thin, and had his heart broken when one of these, Beth, the abused niece of his foster parents, moved in with her much more reliable uncle and found love with a baseball player at her new school (see Dare You To). Most of the people who surround him are as damaged and emotionally scarred as he is, or into some pretty destructive and quite possibly even illegal. It also doesn't take him long to realise that while Rachel may live in a big house, with parents and overprotective brothers, she is terrified of them finding out about her extra-curricular activities and that she's making herself ill trying to keep up her perfect facade. He also discovers, that while she may see herself as weak, she constantly rejects his protective instincts and insists on fighting her own battles.

Written as McGarry's other books, in chapters where the POV alternates between Isaiah and Rachel, the narrative device lets us get to know both characters really well, and invest more strongly in their relationship and emotions. While the characters tend to fall for each other quickly, there are always some pretty substantial challenges in the way of the couples' happy endings, and in this book, it's the fact that Isaiah is a formerly drug using, tattooed and pierced mechanic with an ex-jailbird mother, who's had his faith in pretty much everyone taken away by the crappiness of the world, while Rachel has an overprotective family who either doesn't understand her or won't let her be who she really wants to be and has grown up never being able to surpass the perfection of her long dead sister. Her family would never accept Isaiah, even if he makes her feel safer and more special than anyone else in her life, and they would certainly not react well to hearing that she was being blackmailed by a violent thug with organised crime connections because she snuck out and illegally street raced.

The characters have to work to overcome their difficulties, and one of the reasons that I like McGarry's books so much is that you don't actually have to suspend your disbelief all that much. For all the neglectful, violent or just plain misguided adults out there who screw up their children emotionally, there are also foster care workers, teachers, guidance councilors, therapists and others who want to help and can be trusted, if the damaged kids will just extend some trust. It's clear that there are several more books coming, and I'm hopeful that while the next book is about Rachel's older brother West, I will get to see Isaiah's prickly friend Abby find her soul mate in one of the future books, because she really seems to need to find someone good to take care of her.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 142. "No Good Duke Goes Unpunished" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the third book in a series, and while romance novels are normally fine to read out of sequence, some of the really awesome developments in this book lose a lot if you haven't read the rest of the series. These books are top notch romance, so just do yourself a favour and start at the beginning with A Rogue by Any Other Name. And yes, I know the titles are spectacularly cheesy. I recently discovered in a podcast that these are MacLean's own puns, not anything imposed on her by the publishers. I don't know whether to be impressed or slightly worried about her.

The great hulking brute known as Temple also goes The Killer Duke. He is one of four disgraced members of the aristocracy who own luxury gambling club The Fallen Angel. When the rich and foolish have lost too much, and have no other recourse, they can fight Temple in the Angel's boxing ring. Should they win, all their losses will be restored. Not that anyone ever has, but it never stops them from trying. William Harrow, the Duke of Lamont, shunned by most of polite society because he is suspected of having killed his father's fiancee, is more than happy to take every beating coming, because he's honestly not entirely sure he doesn't deserve his moniker.

Twelve years earlier, he awoke with only the haziest memories of the night before, to discover that the bewitching beauty who'd invited him up to her room was Miss Mara Lowe, his father's sixteen-year-old child bride and soon to be the Duke's third wife. There was no sign of the bride, only him, naked in sheets soaked in blood. Never convicted as there wasn't a body, Temple was nonetheless driven from polite society, and survived in the less prosperous parts of town because of his boxing prowess. After a while, he teamed up with Michael Lawler, the Marquess of Bourne (hero of book one) to run dice games, until the two were nearly killed by street thugs not too happy with their business venture. They were saved by Chase, the mysterious founder of the Fallen Angel, and became part-owners in the club.

Now Christopher Lowe, Mara's brother keeps challenging Temple, wanting to fight him for the chance to reclaim his squandered fortunes. Temple keeps refusing, not wanting anything to do with anyone named Lowe. Walking home one evening, he is approached by a woman revealing herself to be Mara Lowe, who, desperate to escape her wedding, did an incredibly foolish thing twelve years ago, and has been in hiding ever since. She promises to come forward and tell the world that Temple is innocent, as long as he restores her brother's funds. Temple has been tormented for over a decade, because Mara made everyone believe he killed her. He's not going to be satisfied with mere absolution, he wants revenge.

Sarah MacLean keeps amazing me, with each new book, she does something new and exciting. Mara genuinely ruined Temple's life. For twelve years, she hid under an assumed name and let everyone keep on believing that the Marquess of Chapin, later Duke of Lamont, had brutally killed her and disposed of the body. Because she drugged him to carry out her disappearance, Temple has never really had a clear recollection of the evening in question himself, and with his brute strength and capacity for anger, occasionally doubted his own innocence. So he's quite righteously furious when she returns, not even particularly remorseful, trying to negotiate with him. Temple doesn't just want her to clear his name, he wants to humiliate her and make her suffer, as much as possible. We're entirely on Temple's side. Mara is clearly the villain of the piece here.

So how in the world do these two find their happy ending. There was clearly attraction between them, that fateful night twelve years ago, when Mara set her foolish escape plan in motion. Even through the anger Temple feels, he can't help but feel drawn towards her. It's also made clear, over the course of the story, that while Mara doesn't feel like she had a choice, and initially seems quite unconcerned for the immense suffering she's caused, she changes her mind the more time she spends with Temple. The fact that she was sixteen, inexperienced and desperate, and completely unaware of Temple's real identity when she set her plan in motion is also made obvious. In what may seem like a terrible cliche, she now runs an orphanage for young by-blows of the aristocracy, and the reason she needs her brother's debts cleared is because she gave her brother the orphanage's funds to manage, and he carelessly lost them too. If she can't get the money back, the young boys in her care will starve. She can't tell Temple the truth as he makes it very clear that nothing she says or does will sway him from his plan to see her utterly humiliated in the eyes of society.

Temple's business partners and their wives do make cameo appearances in the book, and while they are also deeply furious with Mara to begin with, they start changing their attitudes towards her when they realise that she seems to actually care for Temple, and wants to atone for her past actions. It's more common in romance that the hero is the dislikable scoundrel who needs to win the forgiveness of the heroine and her circle. Here it's the other way around, and it's a brave choice by MacLean. Mara has clearly been sticking her head in the sand, desperately trying not to think about the consequences her actions had. Temple is still a Duke after all, and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. She's been constantly looking over her shoulder, terrified that someone would find her and unravel her secrets. She has to face ugly facts about herself, and her actions, and show herself to be a worthy partner to Temple. Over the course of the book, she's also able to make him see that while his reputation is not what it used to be, he has a lot of good things in his new life to be thankful for, and maybe polite society isn't all that great to be a welcome part of, after all.

Courtney Milan still has the edge, but Sarah MacLean is now neck and neck with her for the title of best historical romance writer out there right now. It's a well-known tradition that in series of romances, the most interesting character is saved for last. Here it's the founder of the Fallen Angel, Chase, who is left until the end, and after the final two pages of this book (which made my jaw figuratively fall to the floor and swear out loud into an empty living room, I was so blown away), I can honestly say that I will be on tenter-hook. It doesn't look like it'll be out until August of next year, but if the first three books in this series are anything to go by, Courtney Milan may have to kiss her crown good-bye.

#CBR5 Book 141. "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch

Page count: 544 pages
Rating: 5 stars

In the city state of Camorr, a small group known as the Gentlemen Bastards work and plot and scheme to lure the valuables from gullible nobles. Their cons are always elaborate and intricate, and done in such a way that their victims are too embarrassed to tell anyone about it. Yet most of their peers in the criminal underworld of Camorr believe the Bastards to be petty thieves and pickpockets, nothing remarkable, but loyal and dependable in a fight.

Unfortunately for Locke Lamora, the leader of the little band, and his friends, their current victims start being suspicious of some of the stories they are told, and soon, the head of the secret police is preparing to finally catch the legendary bandit. As if that wasn't bad enough, someone else has discovered that Locke and his Gentlemen are much more successful criminals than they let on, and use this information to force Locke to help with an attempted power play against the current crime lord of Camorr, Capa Barsavi.

I first read The Lies of Locke Lamora over Easter in 2007, and was absolutely blown away by it. It was such a different take on what I believed epic fantasy must be like. Locke and his compatriots were such unashamed scoundrels, and had so much fun with their schemes. I've seen a lot of comparisons being made to Ocean's Eleven, and it's not difficult to see why. This is a heist book, and the gang believe themselves to be so much more clever than everyone around them. It makes it even more thrilling when it turns out that they are wrong, and someone may have outsmarted them. They may be in a whole heap of trouble, in fact. I read fast, with bated breath, to see how the story would be resolved.

Because it's been more than six years since I read the book, I'd forgotten a LOT of the intricate plotting. I'd forgotten the way Scott Lynch has with words and his wonderful world building. The descriptions of the city of Camorr, both its underworld and the wealthy areas. I remembered the camaraderie between Locke and his friends, and that their plans went a bit pear-shaped, but I hadn't remembered much of the details, and that made this re-read extra enjoyable. It's such a fun book, with twists and turns and genuine shocking moments. Some of it made me cry, some of it made me cheer, and bits made me almost queasy (Lynch doesn't shy away from his graphic description on occasion). The story of how Locke became a Gentleman Bastard and met his gang of thieves is told in flash back, in between the chapters with the main narrative. Yet Lynch has a way of showing how the early experiences made by our hero and his friends became useful learning for their present troubles, which means that both narratives are connected, and you never feel too annoyed at being taken away from something tense and dramatic in the present to read about things that happened long ago. I'm not doing a very good job of selling why this is an awesome book. If you like epic fantasy, just read it.

Monday, 9 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 140. "Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem and Other Things That Happened" by Allie Brosh

Page count: 369 pages
Rating: 5 stars

I knew I was going to love this book when I pre-ordered it several months ago. There was absolutely no question about it. There is barely a single thing Allie Brosh has ever posted on her website that I haven't absolutely adored (oh, the hours of my life that site stole when I first discovered it, thanks to a colleague telling me about the Alot.) Even when Allie didn't update as often any more, it was always a delight when there was something new. So many of the things she wrote about made it feel like she saw the world in exactly the same way I do. We both fear spiders, we both love procrastination on the internet, we both have a mentally challenged animal (one of my cats is a very dim light bulb indeed). Then she wrote about her depression, and it became clear why she wasn't updating her blog very often.

Her two blog entries about depression (both shared in this book as well as on her website) are among the truest and most recognisable things I have ever read. I was depressed during my final year of university, but after years of medication, seem to have had the luck of getting well again. I've experienced some of the things she shares in her stories. I can now show other people what it's like to live with my husband when he's having one of his rough spells, which he will keep having on and off for the rest of our lives, because he's never going to not be depressed, he's just going to be able to cope with it better during the stable periods. I've never met Allie, but I love her for this.

About half of the stuff in the book has already been on Allie's blog. I love her writing, so this was not a problem for me at all. There is also half a book full of new and amazing material, like her letters to her past selves, that had me laughing so hard my stomach hurt and I had trouble breathing. I have ordered the book as a Christmas present for several of my friends, and I wish I knew more people, just so I could gift them this book. It's a hilarious and wonderful book, which you will enjoy if you've enjoyed the stuff on her site. Just buy it already, to make sure she writes a follow-up. After all, I want the Alot in book form too.

#CBR5 Book 139. "Not Quite a Husband" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 341 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Briony Asquith and Leo Marsden grew up on neighbouring estates. Leo loved Briony long before she was even aware of him as anything but the baby Marsden, youngest of four brothers. So when the brilliant, yet socially awkward lady physician proposed to outgoing, talented renaissance man Leo, he was elated, but no one else in society thought it would last. And it didn't. Growing increasingly more distant and cold from their wedding day, Briony starts to actually recoil from Leo's touch, and no matter how he tries to get her to open up, physically and emotionally, their marriage seems doomed. When Briony wakes up one morning with a stark white stripe through her dark hair, she files for an annulment.

Three years later, Leo shows up at Briony's medical clinic in a remote corner of India. Briony's sister has been writing both of them for years with melodramatic stories trying to push the two back together, but this time he's fairly certain she's not lying about Briony's father's health being in danger. Much of India is at the the brink of rebellion, and he feels it's his duty to get Briony back to England safely. Leo doesn't know exactly why their marriage failed, but he's convinced it must have been his fault, that he failed or mistreated her in some way.

Briony is not convinced her sister isn't lying once again, but she also knows that she would never forgive herself if her father dies and she did not try to return to his bedside. She reluctantly goes with Leo, uncomfortable in his presence, but with no other choice of escort. As the couple make their way through the rough Indian countryside, dealing with first Leo's malaria, then a violent and bloody native rebellion as they seek refuge in a nearby fort, they find that the three years apart may have allowed both of them to heal some of their hurts, and open up lines of communication to the other. Can they finally talk about all the things that made their all too brief marriage so miserable, and maybe begin to forgive each other and themselves?

Romances are mostly all about escapism, and the process of falling in love, and we rarely see past the HEA, or Happy For Now. Because of a shocking discovery, Briony was completely unable to trust Leo and started drawing away from him, beginning on the day of their marriage. They never got to Happily Ever After, their marriage just went from bad to worse to impossible to continue. Clearly always an intensely private and introverted person, Briony has difficulties forming attachments, even within her own family. Leo accepted her marriage proposal happily, but didn't really know the woman he married, just the idealised idea he'd made of her. As is the case in a lot of romances, there is a marked lack of clear communication between the heroine and hero, but in Not Quite a Husband it would never have been possible for Briony and Leo to have the honest conversations they needed to have to resolve their marital difficulties at the point where their marriage fell apart. Unlike in some books, where you just want to shake the protagonists and make them have a single conversation that would resolve everything, here there is no such easy fix.

Three years have given both of them time, to change and grow as people and while they may not have wanted to, to consider and gain some perspective of why they never managed to make their brief marriage successful. Both have travelled the world, hearing fanciful stories about what the other was up to from Briony's younger sister. Leo just wants to atone for whatever he must have done wrong to make Briony hate him so much in the past. Spending days in his presence, some of it nursing him back to health, Briony realises that the discovery she made shortly before she married him, no longer hurts her, and she no longer recoils from his touch. In fact, she craves it. The danger they find themselves in force them to finally be honest with one another, and they find a new and unaccustomed closeness, that should have been their when they wed.

This book is so good because it takes so many of the romance conventions and twists them. As in many of Thomas' other books, there is so much bitterness and pain between the couple. They have such enormous power to hurt the one they love, and frequently do. It's not an easy book to read, but as Leo and Briony start to actually open up to each other, instead of lashing out, and work to heal the damage they've previously done to one another, it feels more emotionally powerful than that of a lot of frothy romances with meet-cutes and humorous banter and a shiny fantasy version of what life really is. Most romance couples don't actually have to struggle with marital difficulties and really work to save their relationships. Yet when Briony and Leo finally do solve their troubles, they've truly earned their happiness, and it's probably more real because of their hardships.

Monday, 18 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 138. "Private Arrangements" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 351 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lord and Lady Tremaine have the ideal marriage, according to society. Having lived apart, on separate continents, for the the last decade since their wedding, they are nonetheless all that is elegant and courteous in relation to each other. Until Lady Tremaine shocks everyone, not least her own husband, by asking for a divorce, so she can marry someone else.

Philippa "Gigi" Rowland was the wealthy only child of an industrialist, with a deeply ambitious mother determined that her only daughter end up a duchess. When Gigi's noble, yet penniless fiancee (a duke) dies two weeks before the wedding, all their dreams seem crushed, as the duke's handsome cousin, now a marquess (his father inherits the dukedom) is promised to another. Gigi still refuses give up on Camden Saybrook, manipulating and scheming to get him to marry her. Her plots are revealed the day after their wedding, and Cameron, who'd been a very happy bridegroom, leaves her in disgust.

Mostly the couple live entirely separate lives, their paths crossing only very occasionally. Mrs. Rowland, Gigi's mother, has never been happy about the couple's estrangement and has been sending letters to Camden in America with frequent updates about his wife's whereabouts and goings on. Both have clearly had lovers in the last decade, so it's extra shocking that Gigi petitions for divorce on the grounds of Cameron's infidelity. Cameron returns to London to confront his wife, and realises that he's not ready to let her go. He declares that he will only agree to the divorce once Gigi provides him with an heir. Gigi, while initially appalled, agrees, but keeps the truth of their arrangement from her fiancee, the young Lord Frederick.

Private Arrangements is Thomas' first novel and it was a huge success. I'm not surprised, as she does a lot of things that are unusual for romances, not least tell the story in a non-linear fashion, with half the book taking place in the present, where Gigi and Camden can barely stand to be in the same room as each other, and the other showing us the way they met and fell in love, as well as the complicated plot Gigi set in motion to snag herself a noble husband. It's quite obvious that while they may not like each other all that much, they are still attracted to each other. It also wouldn't be a romance if Gigi actually got granted her divorce and ended up with the oh so nice, but not very exciting Lord Frederick.

Gigi and Camden are also not instantly likable characters. You understand Camden's fury with her, but it also becomes clear that before he left her for good, he gave as good as he got to make Gigi suffer for her scheming. They make each other suffer horribly, and should probably both have been more forgiving and open to communication. Still, because they're so wounded and stubborn and clearly loved each other once, it becomes all the more compelling to see how they'll work through their differences and end up happy together. I'd forgotten just how painful some of the book is, though, and how vicious the couple are to each other. If you're looking for a fun and light read, this is not the romance for you. It's a stunning debut, though.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 137. "The Luckiest Lady in London" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth is known in society as "the Ideal Gentleman". He is handsome, wealthy, charming, generous and famous for his lavish hospitality. Men want to be him, or at least his good friend, and it goes without saying that he's the most eligible bachelor on the market. He's clearly not a virgin, but there is not a whiff of scandal surrounding him, either. Few, if any, suspect that his cheerful and impeccable demeanour is a clearly constructed facade. Having been used as a pawn in the emotional warfare his parents conducted against each other, he's become deeply distrustful of strong emotions, and a master at manipulating those around them so subtly that they believe his suggestions are their own.

Miss Louisa Cantwell is the daughter of a country baron and and one of five sisters, none of whom are likely to snag the wealthy husband needed to secure the family's fortunes. She is neither particularly financially or physically desirable as a bride, but is also fully aware of it, and has worked tirelessly for the last eight years to plan her perfect season. Using every trick in the book, including bust improvers to make it look as if nature gave her a generous bosom, she's determined to find a husband by the end of the season, preferably not one who's too disagreeable. She's found two likely candidates, and uses every chance she gets to cultivate them and their relatives. She wouldn't dream of setting her sights on Lord Wrenworth, and is rather appalled with herself when they finally meet and she's both overwhelmed with lust for him, while at the same time convinced that he's a scoundrel, who can see right through all her. She's wondering why no one else suspects that he's not entirely as he seems.

Because she has absolutely no illusions about securing Wrenworth's affections, Louisa proceeds to be completely honest with him about her attraction. Felix finds it both intriguing and novel that this young woman clearly isn't taken in by "the Ideal Gentleman", and seems to actually dislike him, yet also confesses to erotic dreams about him. Since she sees what no one else sees, he can be shockingly forthright with her, and proposes to make her his mistress. Louisa somewhat reluctantly dismisses him, knowing full well that as a nobleman's lover she will never have the security she craves. Of course, not one to take no for an answer, Felix goes about eliminating her potential suitors, hoping that if she has no marriage prospects, she'll relent by the end of the season. Once he realises she's rather marry a butcher than become his mistress, he has to reevaluate his plans, and makes her his wife instead.

Louisa is a sensible and pragmatic young lady. She's considered all her other sisters, one is a recluse, one appears to be a lesbian, one is an epileptic and the last is "of completely the wrong temperament for the wooing of gentlemen". Their family are not exactly poor, their mother has a pension as long as she lives, but once she dies, the sisters are entirely on their own. She's deeply ambivalent about her feelings for Felix. On the one hand, she's infatuated with him and clearly desires him, on the other, she doesn't trust him for a second, and is uncertain about his motives for actually marrying her, rather than just holding out until she said yes to becoming his mistress. She has no illusions about the marriages of the upper classes, but figures that as long as she's enthusiastic and open for most things in the marriage bed, she might prevent her husband from straying, but she has no expectations of his love.

Felix is scared by the passionate desire he feels for his new wife. In his experience, love makes you weak and vulnerable and he tries to keep himself away from her as much as possible after their wedding night. He can't bear to hurt her for too long though, and soon her continued distrust starts to upset him. He knows that he manipulated her into marriage, and becomes terrified that he will lose her, or that his own marriage will become like that of his parents. "The Ideal Gentleman", who had no time for love needs to win the trust, love and devotion of his own wife.

Sherry Thomas' romances don't work for everyone. While a lot of the genre is frothy, light and diverting, perfect for cheering you up and giving you a much needed escape from your everyday cares, Thomas tends to focus on emotionally messed up protagonists who are often deeply unhappy, with themselves and each other, before they work through their angsty difficulties and start moving towards a happier future. The narratives of her books are frequently non-linear, moving back and forth between the past and the present. The Luckiest Lady in London is about intelligent, distrustful people who end up married to each other, gradually falling in love. There are no flashbacks, the story is chronological, with Felix' unhappy childhood revealed in the prologue.

Thomas has admitted that this novel is inspired by Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, which is so popular it's been number one on All About Romance's Top 100 Romances for at least the last 13 years (in 1998, the first poll listed, it was in shared fifth place). In it, the Marquess of Dain have parents in an unhappy marriage, his mother abandons him and his father is emotionally cold, so he tries his best to be as provoking as possible. He decides to become the most shocking and provoking hellion around, until formidable spinster Jessica (in my top five heroines ever) comes along and changes his life. Wrenworth (who actually appears or is mentioned in every single preceding Thomas romance, so this is sort of a prequel to them) has the same miserable childhood. His mother was pressured into marrying his father, who adored her. She loved another, and tortured Felix' father by strongly implying that his son was illegitimate. She doted on Felix, but only when someone could see it, otherwise both his parents had no time or affection for him. Learning quickly to distrust love, and managing without it, Felix decides to go in a different direction from Dain. He becomes "the Ideal Gentleman", universally irreproachable, adored by everyone. While Dain thrives on the shock and disgust of the ton, Wrenworth needs their adulation, while pretending to scorn it.

It's obvious that Felix becomes a victim of his own success. He clearly wishes that someone see through his perfectly crafted persona, and call him on his machinations, but until Louisa comes along, no one does. The fact that she not only sees the person he's trying to hide, but seems to like him, even when he's a scoundrel. His parents' loveless marriage convinced him that he was better without love, but when his own marriage is in danger of becoming as cold and barren, he realises he has to change before it's too late.

While parts of this novel has some of the trademark Thomas angst and upheaval, it's a lot more fun and light-hearted than her previous books. There's some amazing banter between Felix and Louisa, and he's such an awful, unapologetic schemer that you can't help but like him, even as you can't wait to see him brought to his knees. It's also incredibly refreshing to have a heroine, though a properly brought up virgin when she marries, is unashamed of her desires and curiosity about sex, even before she marries. All of these things make this my new favourite of her novels (AND I rate it higher than Lord of Scoundrels - gasp!)

#CBR5 Book 136. "Written in Red" by Anne Bishop

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 5 stars

I try not to resort to book blurbs to summarise the books for my reviews, but sometimes, they're bloody hard to do without some help. Hence:

No one creates realms like New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop. Now in a thrilling new fantasy series, enter a world inhabited by the Others, unearthly entities - vampires and shape-shifters among them - who rule the Earth and whose prey are humans.

As a "cassandra sangue", or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut - a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg's Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard - a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liason job. First, he senses that she is keeping a secret, and second, she doesn't smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she's wanted by the government, he'll have to decide if she's worth the fight between the humans and Others that will surely follow.

I hadn't actually read the blurb when I started the book, and was therefore extremely pleasantly surprised by the world building presented in the introduction. The Others, or the terra indigine are the original inhabitants of Earth. They are vampires, and shape-shifters of all manner of varieties. There are elemental spirits, and ancient terrifying things that go bump in the night. The humans originated in this world's version of Europe, and as they started exploring new parts of the world, discovering that there were a lot of things out there with teeth and claws who would considered them prey. In Thaisia, this world's version of America, the humans eventually managed to settle enough people to make safer settlements. The humans are clever and inventive, but the Others control all the natural resources they need to make their new inventions work. In the more heavily populated human areas, there is usually an uneasy truce between the Others and the humans. In every large city, there has to be an Others-controlled Courtyard, where the Others operate the businesses and keep an eye on the humans, making sure they don't get any ideas above themselves.

The Lakeside Courtyard, where Simon Wolfgard (guess what he turns into) is the leader, is probably the most progressive of all of Thaisia's Others-controlled areas. The Others in the Lakeside Courtyard even have human employees and generally seem pretty tolerant, but if the local humans forget themselves and trespass, they are still ruthlessly eaten. Meg comes stumbling into the Courtyard in the middle of a fierce snowstorm, nearly frozen to death. Just the fact that she's poorly dressed for the elements and seems so unafraid of the Others, intrigues Simon and the other terra indigine of Lakeside. They always have to have a Human Liaison, who does just what it sounds like, liaises between the Others and their peculiar and often a bit hostile ways, and the humans who deliver post, services and goods to the Courtyard. Meg, knowing that no expense will be spared to recapture her, is relieved to be in an area where human laws don't apply, and big, fierce shape-shifters and bloodsuckers will eat anyone who tries to trespass.

Meg is wary among the Others, but a lot more terrified of being taken back to the compound where she was held captive. She and her fellow blood prophets (always female, it seems) are locked up and every aspect of their lives are controlled. They're told when and what to eat, how much to exercise. As long as they co-operate, they are pampered, but they can also be brutally punished for disobedience. Every inch of their skin is a valuable commodity, as every cut yields an absolutely true prophecy, which can be triggered by a specific focus. Hence the Controllers sell the predictions, and the girls are discarded when they no longer have skin left to cut. The girls are taught about the outside world through pictures and films, and occasionally given misinformation as well, to test their prophetic abilities. It's clear that Meg vaguely remembers a time before she was taken to the compound, and given a number rather than her name, so it's clear that girls suspected of her "gift" may just be seized when their prophetic abilities manifest. Because the girls are driven to cut themselves to get the prophecies out, no matter what, and sometimes they end up hurting themselves if not controlled, the government has decreed that all cassandra sangues are to live under the "benevolent ownership" of state-approved Controllers. They have no legal rights of their own, and are as such, slaves to their masters.

"The Meg" as she is called by the inhabitants of the Lakeside Courtyard is a fascinating character. She could easily have been seen as a Mary Sue, because every new thing she sets out to do, she seems to manage admirably almost immediately, and pretty much everyone seems to love her within minutes of meeting her. Yet it's also clear that the blood prophets aren't entirely like normal humans. They're not entirely Other, but there is a reason that Meg doesn't smell like prey to the shape-shifters, and that her "sweet blood" is deemed off limits to the vampires. In addition, because Meg knows that she needs to stay in the Others' good graces, so she's not eaten, or worse, left to fend for herself against the Controllers' men who are looking for her, she tries her best to be open-minded, polite, efficient and agreeable. Because she has so little practical experience in the real world, she frequently struggles with fairly mundane tasks, and the various species of Others find her very amusing to watch. She's also not been brought up with the prejudices towards Others that most humans have. While she forces herself to be cheerful and useful around the Courtyard, she's clearly both afraid and annoyed by Simon, and the fact that the two of the grate so much on each other is clearly a sign that in future books they are meant to be. There's a little bit of romantic tension in the book, but anyone looking for paranormal romance or lots of kissing and shape-shifter/vampire smexy times, will be very disappointed.

I already mentioned that the world building does something completely new to me in paranormal/urban fantasy. The idea that the supernatural creatures are not the minorities that have to hide their true selves from most humans, or "come out" as part of the story, but are in fact the dominant species, cause let's face it, they are bigger, faster and stronger and humans are just clever meat to them, is awesome. It's such a nice twist on what you normally find, and had me intrigued from the very first page. That the various supernatural inhabitants in the Lakeside Courtyard are all well developed, with a number of interesting and complex characters in the community making the story not just about Meg and Simon. There's just as much diversity among the human characters. Some are selfish and prejudiced and anti-Others, and some are determined to make sure they leave in harmony with them, avoiding pissing them off to the point where they just exterminate the human settlements.

I've complained before that with a lot of the genre, you have to read a couple of books before the world is fully established, you really get a feel for the characters, and the stories really get going. This is not the case here. Bishop skilfully hooks you into her world, she makes you care deeply about her characters, and she introduces enough complications and plot momentum that you are never bored. I kept expecting the book to lose me, it couldn't possibly be quite so perfect all the way through, but this really is a great start to a new series. I couldn't really find niggles. The main plot of the book is also tied up, so it can be read as a stand alone, but there is a lot of tension set up between the humans and the Others that will clearly become important later in the series. I'm also glad I waited this long to read the book, as it means the next one is out in March 2014, making the wait for the next one less painful. If you like paranormals, but are a bit bored with the sameyness of the genre - do yourself a favour - read this book.